Have human grammars evolved? | OUPblog

In order to hypothesize the evolutionary origins of grammar, it is essential to rely on a theory or a model of human grammars. Interestingly, scholars engaged in the theoretical study of grammar (syntacticians), especially those working within the influential cadre associated with the linguist Noam Chomsky, have been reluctant to consider a step-by-step selection-based approach to grammar. Nevertheless, these researchers have developed an elaborate and precise theory of human grammars. It has recently been shown that this syntactic theory can in fact be used, as precise as it is, to reconstruct the stages of the first grammars, and even to point to the constructions in current languages ​​which resemble/close to these first proto-grammars . (Ljiljana Progovac, 2015, Scalable Syntax). These constructions can be considered as “living fossils” of the first grammars, because they continued to coexist with more recently evolved structures (Ray Jackendoff, 2002, Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution).

While some say we can never understand the origins of language because “language leaves no fossils”, my recent engagement with this topic leads me to the conclusion that language, and even better, the thousands of languages humans spoken today reveal a multitude of living languages. fossils and other clues to the origins of the language. But it is only by using a coherent linguistic theory as a tool that one can access such fossils and clues. Moreover, thanks to recent advances in neuroscience and genetics, it is now possible to test such hypotheses.

By following a method of reconstruction mentioned above, one arrives at the initial stage of the grammar which was an intransitive mold with two boxes, and in which the subject/object distinction could not be expressed grammatically. In syntactic theory, sentences and sentences are considered as hierarchical constructions, composed of several layers of structure, built in a binary way. Thus, to derive a sentence such as The deer will eat fishwe first assembled the inner layer, the small clause (eat fish). The tense layer (will be) and the transitivity layer (stag), are not added until later on top of this small clause foundation. The transitivity layer allows grammatical differentiation between subjects and objects (ex. Deer eat fish; Eating fish by deer).

It is important to note that the layer on which the whole sentence rests is the inner, fundamental (eat fish) layer, which can therefore be reconstructed as the initial stage of the grammar. The unspecified role of the noun in this layer can be characterized as the absolutive role, since these roles are not directly sensitive to the subject/object distinction. Absolute-type roles are found not only in languages ​​classified as ergative-absolutive, but probably in all languages ​​in one form or another. Human languages ​​actually differ widely in how they express transitivity, and this reconstructed absolutive-like basis provides the common denominator, the foundation from which all variation can arise. Given this approach, variation in the expression of transitivity can shed light on the chronology of hominins, as well as the timing of the emergence of different grammar stages.

A living fossil of the absolutive type is found among verb-noun compounds, such as English: crybaby, spoiler, gossip, defector, dazed, tumble (bug); Serbian cepi dlaka (forked hair; split hair), ispi-cutura (drinking flask; drunkard), vrti-guz (turn-but; fidget), jebi-vetar (wind screw; charlatan); and Twi (spoken in Ghana) kukru-bin (roll-feces; beetle). If we compare compounds such as rotating plate and defector, we observe that the first describes a table that turns (the table is subject), and the second describes someone who turns his coat, metaphorically speaking (the coat is object). But these two compounds are assembled by exactly the same grammar: the verb-noun mold with two niches, incapable of making subject/object distinctions.

It is important that this type of two-box grammar, combining a verb-like element and a noun-like element, is not completely beyond the reach of non-humans. The Kanzi bonobo is said to have mastered this syntax in its use of lexigrams and gestures (Patricia Greenfield and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, 1990, “Language and intelligence in monkeys and apes”). If Kanzi is in principle capable of (sporadic) two-sign combinations, then it is conceivable that at least some individuals of our common ancestor with the bonobos are as well. Scholars sometimes assume that finding continuity of grammar with animal abilities involves finding identical abilities. But that can’t be true, because, after all, humans have had millions of years to undergo selection for their linguistic abilities since our common ancestor’s time with the bonobos. Continuity must therefore be sought in the most rudimentary precursors of language skills.

As well as being illustrative of the most basic grammar, it is intriguing that verb-noun compounds in many languages ​​specialize in derogatory references and insults when referring to humans. There are many crude and obscene representatives of these compounds in various languages, the vast majority of which, however, have been lost and forgotten. In medieval times alone, thousands of these compounds were used, certainly far more than nature needs. Such abundance, even extravagance, is usually associated with display and sexual selection, the force that also created the peacock’s tail. Just as with the peacock’s tail, what a species selects is not necessarily good or superior in a high sense, or for long term purposes. It may simply be what is found interesting and new at a particular time, in a particular place. As Charles Darwin noted, primates suffer from neophilia (love of novelty), and the human species is certainly guilty of it (Darwin, 1872, The expression of emotions in humans and animals).

Featured image credit: “2100-year-old human footprints preserved in volcanic mud near lake in Managua, Nicaragua” by Dr d12. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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